Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

John Berger passed away on 2 January 2017, (New York Times, 2 Jan, 2017), and reading about his life reminded me about his impact on my art education.  Berger was a British art critic, amongst other roles, and the host of the television series Ways of Seeing.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb.  Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name.  The series and book criticise traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.  The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon. (Description taken from Wikipedia).

I first came across Ways of Seeing in the early 2000s at art school, and it rocked my world.  It made me look at everything with a new need to understand and deconstruct the layers.  It really appealed to my youthful inner conspiracy theorist and detective instincts, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Trust nothing on face value.  Question everything.  What is the hidden meaning and what/who has orchestrated you to come to this idea.  A painting was no longer only different coloured paint on a canvas, it became a work with multiple layers of meaning to peel away to understand completely.  Who made it?  When was it made?  Why was it made?  Which critic wrote about it?  Why does it hang in this gallery?  Who decided to buy it?  Why did the museum buy it?  Was there a political agenda?  Let alone the concept of the reproduction of the image.  Being a photography student at the beginning of the wave of digital photography entering the mainstream (pre iPhones, imagine!), this blew my mind.  Context, meaning, death of the author, copyright… And these concepts are applicable now more than ever with the internet and social media.  Images are copied and replicated at an alarming rate.

The series is very dated, for the classroom.  Not sure if a student would also be able to resist John Berger’s lisp.  Even I cant but help imitating it after watching an episode. There is the text, Ways of Seeing, which could be brought into the classroom, and snippets of the series could be used to initiate discussion. It is in itself now a classic. And like classics, sequels, remakes and homages are spawned to honour them. Welcome New Ways of Seeing. The New York Times T Brand Studio and Tiffany and Co. have come together to create a new five part series called New Ways of Seeing.  To view all episodes visit http://paidpost.nytimes.com/tiffany/new-ways-of-seeing.html.

New Ways of Seeing, Episode One: Art Contains Multitudes presented by Jerry Saltz

The series is so new, that only episodes one to three have aired yet. The series is essentially presenting the same principle, almost picking up where the last series left off. The episodes are short, catchy, and easily digestible for the classroom.  It is almost like an advert for the episode, with short snippets of interviews and soundbites of information. Episode three deals with art in the digital age, and is presented by Tavi Gevinson, the young Rookie editor.



Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

Lara Thoms

Lara Thoms is an artists who researches, investigates and explores.  Her main area of research tends to be centered on people.  Her work is serious, but deep down it is very funny.  Satirical and smart funny.  But she is not making fun of the people.  Operating on multiple layers and levels smart funny.  Thoms’ work introduces you to aspects of society, and people, who you may never encounter, or even dream of encountering.  Joy Hurub, 87 year old Sydney resident who broadcasts television form her garage, is one of these amazing people.  And so are the 150 people Thoms’ interviewed as part of her Experts Project.

The Experts Project was a two year participatory performance work project where Thoms spoke with 150 unofficial experts and general members of the public, to learn about and understand their specific expertise, culminating with Thoms posing as the expert and having her photo taken by the original expert, to signify the exchange of information. This work explores ideas of pedagogy, skill and learning, voyeurism and also traditions of craft and the passing on and sharing of knowledge. Lessons include how to host a medieval dinner party; slice frozen fish; and even how to enter and exit combat zones. As previously mentioned, Thoms is a smart funny artist. But when she presents her expert lessons, she does so with the utmost respect for the person. There is a faint level of parody, but above all her lessons show that event eh everyday jobs require expertise.

Video interview with Lara Thoms by Real Time, artv studio: Lara Thoms, The Experts Project from RealTime on Vimeo.

Practice: Students could engage in a number of art making activities to emulate Thoms practice. They could research a topic, or an expertise, and give a presentation to the class on that topic.
Students could pair off, and one student identifies an expertise of theirs, such as stamp collecting, video games, dancing etc, that they teach and pass on to the the other student. The student who learnt the expertise then presents their knowledge to the class.
Photography exercise of portraiture.
The final photographs of Thoms dressed as the expert, to me, are reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.  The introduction of Sherman’s work could contrast nicely with the Thoms, in relation to the study of people, and their representation. Sherman works with series, often portraying Caucasian women and dressing up in elaborate costumes to portray the characters.
Cultural: You could compare the culture represented in both Thoms and Sherman’s work. Even though there is an element of parody and jest that can be interpreted from the works, both artists are dealing with true themes, respecting their subjects. You can explore the film noir aspect of both works, and discuss what it is that each artist is attempting to gain through dressing up as someone else.
Structural: Lara Thom’s work is a great way to explore different mediums, and the  ephemeral aspects of performance. What is the artwork? When Thoms talks to the expert? When she give the presentation? Or the photograph at the end, the recording of the work? You are discussing a work you have not or cannot view in entirety as it occurred in the past? How does this change the understanding of the work?

Resource links:

Lara Thoms

Dämmerschlaf at Artspace

Mikala Dwyer, ‘The hanging garden of moonman marigolds’, 2016, installation view, ‘Dämmerschlaf’, Artspace, Sydney. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Photo: Artspace.
Accessed on 23 January 2016:  http://www.artspace.org.au/program/exhibitions/2016/daemmerschlaf/


Right now and throughout mid January to mid February, above the Australian sky, there is a planetary alignment that is happening.  If you look up to the predawn sky, all five of the visible (to the human eye) planets, being Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, can be seen all together, hanging out in the universe above us like a gang of celestial buddies.  The planets are brought together by invisible forces, and during this same period of celestial connection, three artists are also brought together to explore the connection of the physical and conceptual thresholds between the studio and the gallery.

Nick Dorey, Mikala Dwyer, Clare Milledge are exhibiting in Dämmerschlaf, the first exhibition of the Artspace 2016 program.  All three artists were 2015 One Year Studio Artists at Artspace, and this is their resulting body of work.  Dämmerschlaf is the German word for ‘twilight sleep’, a form of calming pain relief.  Dämmerschlaf is an evolving experience taking place throughout the month of January, slowly growing and moving and aligning throughout the course of the exhibition.  All artists have relocated their working environments from the upstairs studio to the downstairs gallery, creating together and aligning their ideas in the exhibition space. The artist is actively present throughout the exhibition, creating and designing the space where you can watch them in-situ, much like the planets in our night time sky.

Why the link between Dämmerschlaf and the planets? Well, the works are of a spiritual and supernatural perspective.  The artists explore the occult, the moon, perceptions of realities and physical and conceptual thresholds.

Stage 6
This would be a good experience for Stage 6 students to go and visit an artists studio in preparation for creating a major body of work.  Artistic collaboration and different art making practices can be viewed in-situ and compared between the artists.

The Conceptual Framework can explore the notions of space, the studio space vs exhibition space. The physical and spiritual space.  The artist and the audience in the same space.  The performance of the creation of the work can also be explored.  There is a public program from GreenUps, which indicate concepts of sustainability will be at play throughout the exhibition.  Another concept to explore is the title: What does Dämmerschlaf mean? (The German word Dämmerschlaf is translated into English as ‘twilight sleep’, which describes a state induced by a combination of analgesia (pain relief) and amnesia to combat the pain — or the memory of pain). Why is this title significant? How does twilight sleep, amnesia and an induced state of calm and relief feature in the exhibition?

Dämmerschlaf at Artspace

Collage – artist examples

Collage is an art form that is having a resurgence.  Or maybe it never went away?  Regardless, it is finding its way back into art galleries and into the practice of some well known Sydney artists.  From its early days from the start of the 20th Century, with Picasso and Braque, it has traversed from modernism, satirical, to the decorative and craft.  Resting at the tacky flower decoupaged potpourri holder arts in the mid 1990’s.

But collage is a beautiful thing.  And it is a very accessible art form to introduce into the classroom, at any stage.

collage 1
Artist: Chelsea Tuesday, Sydney Collage Society, image sourced from: http://sydneycollagesociety.com/chelsea-tuesday/.

The Sydney Collage Society, established in 2015, is one such group that pushes the boundaries of the cut-and-paste.  A group exhibition, titled Cut It Out!,  (at Low Road Garage in Paddington) was a complete mix up of different collage techniques to show many different ways the art form can be applied.

Another fantastic artist is Oliver Watts, who makes paper cut works. Inspired from Dadaism, and the French poet Tristian Tzara, Watts creates intricate pictures and the re-telling of stories, all from assembling pieces of cut paper.  Watts further explored the genre of collage and paper cuts with his short film, The Sea Hare, 2013, where he re-imagined a fairy tale, based on one by the Brothers Grimm, of a princess in a tower with 12 windows.  Placed quite firmly in the cerebral, Watts’ playful works always make you think.  And they are always beautiful as well.

My favorite collage creating duo are Greedy Hen.  These two awesome ladies have created some wondrous images and landscapes from layering image upon image.  The duo are regularly commissioned to create album cover art for bands, and films clips, and posters and even a clip of kittens smashing up instruments for MTV.  The works traverse easily to the moving image, and always have a sense of play.

Collage – artist examples

Meri Cherry blog – art making activities

Meri Cherry is her real name and her blog is all about art making activities for babies to Kindergarten children and a bit older.  The activities listed on her blog are great.  They range from simple and using what you have around the house, to more sophisticated and needing to buy the materials.  Being based in Los Angeles, USA, and adhering to the Reggio Emilia Approach inspired learning style, the terminology is different to what we use.  Process art is important to Cherry, and it is bound up in the Montessori concept of the rich experience of learning.  Emphasis is put on the process rather than the outcome, much like art therapy techniques where the therapy is the journey and not the end object.

There are so many art activities listed that you could keep your children entertained for days with them.  Some are USA holiday focussed, such as Halloween pumpkin activities, but all are great inspiration.

There’s art from nature themed activities; activities that focus on the medium, such as washi tape and sculpy (Plasticine for Australians); there’s the excellently named artsy fartsy category of activities as well (which include arty crayon tree sculptures).

Meri Cherry art making activities: http://www.mericherry.com/ 

Meri Cherry blog – art making activities

Eco Art and Artists

Ecological sustainability and the environment are big topics.  The climate and how the actions of humanity are affecting the planet are important areas of discussion, for the classroom and beyond.  From November 30 to December 11, 2015,  COP21 will be held, (also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference).  COP21 is the 21st annual conference, held by the United Nations, that brings together heads of state and country to discuss climate change and the positive actions to take to combat it.  As part of the conference, the UN is also organizing a corresponding exhibition, titled Artists 4 Paris Climate 2015, inviting 16 artists from around the world to make an artwork that deals with climate and the environment.  Among the 16 artists is Australian born, and Sydney based, Janet Laurence.

There are other artists that produce work within the emerging term of EcoArt, or Ecological Art, and many can be accessed right here in New South Wales.

Historical Framework
EcoArt can be looked at historically in relation to the 1970s and the Earthworks, Earth Art and Land Art movements that mainly originated in the USA.  Having links to Arte Povera, for the use of natural and easily found objects, Earth Artists generally used materials that were located at the site, such as rocks and dirt, and essentially created the term site specific.  This was also a way of questioning the commodity of art in relation to the white cube and the four walls of the gallery space, as the artworks could not be easily removed form the natural site.  In 1968 – 1969 Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Sydney, as the first Kaldor Art Project, and wrapped the Little Bay coastline in fabric, creating Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet.  An example of an environmental artwork, where the terrain of the earth is used as a sculptural reference in the artwork.

Michaela Gleave
Artist Michaela Gleave does not overtly call herself an EcoArtist, or an artist who deals with ecological themes, although many of her works are temporal and deal with natural phenomena.  Looking at Gleave’s work as a form of EcoArt  opens up the Subjective Frame for discussion, as we are finding different layers of meaning in the work than the artist intended.
Cloud Field (Föhn Bank)2007, is an artwork that essentially immerses the audience in an enclosed space of clouds.  Gleave creates a mini ecosystem inside the gallery walls and brings the outside natural environment into the gallery space, the opposite to what many of the artists from the 1970s Land Art movement did who created site specific works, which required the audience to travel to the artwork.  The clouds in Cloud Field are made form harvested rain water, and use an ultrasonic system that creates a dense heavy cloud that floats on the floor of the created space, incorporating scientific methods into the artwork.

Another artwork which brought the outside environment into the space of the gallery was the 2012 artwork by Gleave titled Our Frozen Moment.  Opposite to Cloud Field, which was a white and light artwork that almost rendered the audience member invisible in the atmospheric environment that floated up from below, Our Frozen Moment was a very orchestrated, theatrical and dark piece.  The artwork required the audience member to put on a rain coat, like a costume, to enter the darkened space.  This made the visitors perform the role of an actor in the artwork.  Once inside the dark room, the visitor climbed onto a boxing ring type space and water rained down on them from above, again bringing in the outside world into the space of the gallery.

Another artist who deals, overtly, with issues of climate change and the environment is Tega Brain.  Brain’s work comments directly on issues of capitalism, politics and the environment. Brain comes from a cross-disciplinary background in environmental and water engineering, and also like Gleave, uses machines and science in her artworks to make comments  on the environment.  In 2011 Brain made the artwork Coin Operated Wetland, exhibited at Firstdraft Gallery. As the title suggests, Brain created a coin operated laundromat in the gallery space, that used the water from a man made mini wetland.  Issues of the environmental impact of humans on wetlands is explored in the artwork, and the priorities of bright whites vs nature.

Art making/ practice:  Stages 1 to 3 students can explore ideas of using found objects in nature to make art. This could be further linked it to the idea of Arte Povera, and could have students source recycled materials from around the home to create sculptures.
Have students create site specific artworks with natural found objects, such as a giant sand sculpture, and photograph is at time and nature slowly erode it.
Stages 4 to 6 students can incorporate elements of science to create works which either directly comment on the environment or reference the environment in some way.
Students can create their own environmental space, bringing the outside world into the gallery. Something as small as a terrarium of a wetland, to as large as completely transforming a room with sounds and lights.  This could be taken to the digital world, and and students could create their idea environment through digital technology.
Conceptual Framework: Michaela Gleaves artworks can be discussed in relation to the artist intention, audience perception, and artwork meaning relationship. The involvement of the audience to give the work meaning, namely in Our Frozen Moment can also be explored.
Subjective: What do these artworks, and other artworks that deal with the environment, mean to you? Do you think it’s an important theme for artists to may comments on?
Cultural: What role is the artist performing in creating artworks which make commentary on the environment. Do you agree with the artist and the comment they are making though their artwork?
Structural: The scientific aspects of the work can be outlined and the links between art and science can be further discussed.
Postmodern: Look at the history of Land Art and Earth Art and also the artwork of Christo and Jean-Claude form 1969, Wrapped Coast, in relation to the EcoArt from the present day.  Are there similarities?  Are the same ideas being addressed?

Additional resources:

Eco Art and Artists

David Capra

David Capra is an artist that deals primarily with performance and experience, inviting the audience to be part of the artwork to give it structure and meaning.  He does not perform on a stage with the audience silently watching on.  Capra directly involves the audience to experience the artwork, in turn making them a part of it.  He calls himself an ‘intercessory artist’, whose work takes the form of interventions into physical and social space designed to initiate healing. (Information sourced from the MCA website: http://www.mca.com.au/artists-and-works/artist-commissions/david-capra-teenas-bathtime-2015/).

The Conceptual Framework discussion:
The Ministry of Handshakes is an artwork where Capra shakes audience and visitor’s hands with a giant prop arm.  Capra greets audience members as they enter an area or space, or in alternative versions of the performance, Capra walks towards members of the audience and public, making the artwork space mobile and actively bringing it to the audience.  This artwork involves the audience directly through the artist initiating contact with them, inviting them into the space to be involved in the artwork, but at the same time distancing them, as the artist is using a two meter long prop arm, having the audience shake his hand from a distance.   If you look at the artist’s statement about his performance practice, where he calls himself an ‘intercessory artist’, this distancing could also be viewed as a means of trying to help, though cautiously respecting people’s personal space, but welcoming them.

This artwork, and artist David Capra, is a great way to discuss The Conceptual Framework, the relationship between the artist, audience and artwork.  The Subjective Frame can also be discussed, in relation to the space the artist creates through welcoming visitors but keeping a long distance away from them, and how the students interpret the meaning of the space created by the artist.

Teena’s Bathtime Eau De Wet Dogge perfume, 100ml bottle. Photo by Damien Brinley, courtesy the artist.
Teena’s Bathtime Eau De Wet Dogge perfume, 100ml bottle. Photo by Damien Brinley, courtesy the artist.

David Capra has a sausage dog (dachsund) called Teena.  Capra has incorporated Teena into a number of his artworks.  In 2013 he invited audience members to dance with Teena as part of Workout at the MCA.  And in early 2015 Capra made Teena’s Bathtime, also at the MCA, where he re-created the experience of bathing Teena in a special room that immersed all the senses in the experience.  There was the smell of wet dog; the visuals of Teena being bathed and bubbles floating in the air; a giant Teena sculpture you could touch; the sound of Teena being bathed; and during a special public program event (with a meet and greet with Teena and Capra) dog treats that you could make were available to give to your dog to taste.  Teena doesn’t like having a bath, and is anxious about the experience.  This is understood from watching the video of Teena having a bath and from discussions Capra has with audiences during public program events.  In Capra’s discussions with audience members about Teena’s Bathtime, a lot of discussion is centered around mental health and anxiety.  People have written letters of support to Teena offering advice on how to manage her anxiety.

This year (2015) Capra also launched another artwork about Teena at Gallery 9, called Teena’s Bathtime – Eau de Wet Dogge.  This artwork is an extension of Teena’s Bathtime and is another immersive performance experience.  The exhibition at Gallery 9 was the launch of a perfume Capra created, with the help of professional perfumer Jonathon Midgley from Damask Perfumery The perfume smells of flowers, wet dog fur, and sour bath bubbles.  Everyone at the exhibition said they could smell different dog related smells in the perfume.  It is a playful artwork that comments on the world of perfume making and the sense of smell and the experience of bathing Teena.  During the opening Capra walked around with Teena on a leash, welcoming the visitors to the perfume launch.

David Capra and Teena during the opening of Teena’s Bathtime – Eau de Wet Dogge, at Gallery 9, 11 November 2015. Photo by Damien Brinley, courtesy the artist.
David Capra and Teena the dog greeting audience members during the opening of Teena’s Bathtime – Eau de Wet Dogge, at Gallery 9, 11 November 2015. Photo by Damien Brinley, courtesy the artist.

Practice: Students could try making an immersive experience using one or all of the senses.
It could be extended to exploring the concept of Synesthesia. They could pick an experience and try to recreate it with a different sensory experience. Example: Recreate the sound, smell and touch of eating a burger or ice cream; or the feeling and visuals of music.
For Stages 1 to 3 Creative Art Students an additional resource to extend the exploration of sensory representation of colours is a book called The Black Book of Colors.  This is an excellent resource to explore blindness and colour experience through touch and description.
Conceptual Framework: Students can consider and discuss David Capra’s relationship with the audience in his artworks.  This is best explored through the artwork The Ministry of Handshakes. 
Subjective: Discuss the sensory and immersive experience of the work, and what it means to the student. What are some of the key words that describe the artwork experience for you.
Cultural: Issues of anxiety and mental health can be explored.  The anxiety of Teena having a bath, and how Capra has addressed this through exploring the experience and creating a sensory environment that invites the audience to help Teena deal with her anxiety.
Structural: What visual and sensory language does artist David Capra use to convey his artwork? How does using all the senses (sight, sound, taste, smell and touch) and involving the audience in a performance change the experience of the artwork compared to a 2D artwork?
Postmodern: How does artist David Capra challenge mainstream ideas about art?  How does he represent his ideas in the artworks and how are his artworks different to others you have seen?

Resource links:

David Capra